Can Mitt Romney Co-Opt the Conservative Media?

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He and his wife hosted dozens of right-leaning magazine writers and bloggers at an off-the-record Washington, D.C., meeting.

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Reuters

Mitt Romney met with dozens of conservative journalists at a private club in Washington, D.C., Wednesday. Did they press him on the agenda he'll implement as president and report their findings back to the rank-and-file? Nope. It's only because The Huffington Post reported on the meeting that we know about it. "The attendees came from numerous conservative sites and right-of-center publications, including National Review, Daily Caller, American Spectator, Washington Examiner, Right Wing News, Powerline, Townhall, Ace of Spades, Rhiel World View, White House Dossier, and Pajamas Media. RNC chairman Reince Preibus also attended," Michael Calderone reports. "Details of the Romney meeting did not previously leak out because of the off-the-record ground rules. So even though there were as many as 60 writers at the Capitol Hill Club gathering, along with others calling in by phone, they weren't permitted to cover."  

Well played, Mitt Romney.

This is how to co-opt journalists. Eager for access to the Republican nominee, or curious about what he'd say at the meeting, they agreed to the off-the-record ground rules. It's easy to imagine how it could all play out. Romney vows he'll be a loyal conservative who'll ambitiously push a Tea Party agenda. And tells the journalists they're so very important. They feel important, in spite of themselves, for getting exclusive access; and having heard the man affirm his bona fides, they can't help but be won over a bit. They go easier on Romney, defending him at times while thinking that they possess private information the rest of us don't know -- stuff that Romney isn't saying publicly because he has to win over swing voters. It's perfect for Romney because he need never be held accountable to what he told the conservative journalists, or at least not nearly as accountable as if he'd been forced to say it on the record.

That's how it typically goes when politicians gather journalists together for off-the-record meetings. They're doing it because they feel it's in their interest. That they can favorably influence coverage by saying things in private that they aren't willing to say in public. Journalists like inside information. They like being courted. They don't want to miss out on a meeting competitors are attending. And they don't want to believe a seemingly likable guy is using them.

So you get people -- many of whom were outraged at the notion that liberal journalists were having off-the-record, ideologically closed chats and purportedly coordinating coverage via Journolist -- meeting off-the-record to talk about covering the presidential race... with an actual presidential candidate!

Says Calderone:

"The basic message I got is the primary's over and we want you on our side and working with the campaign," said one attendee. Another described the meeting as "sort of an olive branch to conservative media." Romney told attendees that it will be tough getting the campaign's message across through mainstream media in a general election, presumably because of the assumption shared by conservatives that political journalists are likely to put their thumb on the scale for Obama.

I found this nugget interesting too:

During a Q&A period, attendees brought up Fast and Furious, the botched U.S. gunrunning sting that conservative outlets have given more attention than the national media, along with concerns that the Romney campaign will continue leaking to establishment outlets, including ABC News and Politico, rather than conservative ones.

If that accurately characterizes the Q&A period it doesn't say much for conservative journalists. You've got the candidate in the room, and the subjects on which you question him are 1) an Obama Administration scandal; and 2) whether you're going to be the recipient of his future leaks?

This is how it starts.

Mitt Romney and the conservative media establishment get excessively cozy with one another. Perverse incentives are introduced. He gets more favorable coverage, and if he becomes president, he's held less accountable than he ought to be by journalists who share his ideology.

Conservative journalists and GOP partisans become indistinguishable.

And come 2016, I find myself writing an essay about the uncanny similarities between the way the conservative media carried water for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney; how it ultimately hurt conservatives in both cases; how maybe the conservative media would do better to stop conceiving of itself as MSM critics, producing work derivative of what the "lamestream media" does, and to start producing the best work it can, as if producing journalism is an end rather than a means.

I'm sure a lot of people with integrity attended that off-the-record meeting. As individuals, everyone had an incentive to go. I'm equally sure that the Romney campaign would love to co-opt the conservative media, and that conservative journalists have an interest in not letting it happen. Except Rush Limbaugh, who is doubtless eager to be invited back to the White House.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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